Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing are sacraments directed to our own salvation. The sacraments of Holy Order and Marriage are different: they are given for the salvation of others. Not everyone is called to receive them, although they have been given to us for the good of the whole Church and the building up of our communion with one another and with God.
Holy Orders is the sacrament (a holy and visible sign of an invisible reality) through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church. At their ordination, those who are ordained to an office in the Church (Bishop, Priest or Deacon) receive a gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives them a sacred authority that is conferred upon them by Christ through the Bishop.
The ministry of bishops goes back to Jesus Christ, who commissioned his apostles to do his work. Those apostles ordained others after them, who ordained others after them, and so on, until we reach the bishops of today’s Church. Our bishops therefore stand in a continuous line of succession which stretches back to Jesus Christ himself. Just as in the early Church, when the apostles were endowed with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfil their mission, so in today’s Church, ordination witnesses the outpouring of the Spirit on the candidate. This is signified in episcopal and priestly ordinations (which are also known as consecrations) by anointing with holy oil and the imposition of hands.
The particular role of bishops with in the Church is to sanctify (i.e. make holy), teach and rule the rest of the body of Christ, in his name and as his representative. Like the priests of the Old Testament, they stand as the people’s representatives before God, and God’s representatives to his people. Yet unlike the priests of the Old Testament, who offered their own sacrifices, the Church recognises that the only acceptable sacrifice to God is the life and death of Jesus Christ. So the bishops of the Church are called in a particular way to represent the people to God and God to the people, by embodying Christ in and through whose own priesthood they act. This is what is meant when the Church talks about the Bishop acting in persona Christi.
Each Bishop has pastoral care over a particular Diocese, area, or other jurisdiction entrusted to him. As these areas are often large, and usually comprise hundreds of parishes and possibly thousands of people, he delegates aspects of his pastoral care to priests. This happens in two ways: firstly, the Bishop, by the laying on of hands and anointing, ordains priests to share in the celebration of some of the sacraments, such as Baptism, the Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing; secondly, the Bishop can choose to delegate to a Priest the pastoral care of the people in a particular part of his Diocese or area, such as a parish. Priests to whom this care has been given are, in the Church of England, known variously as vicars, rectors, or priests-in-charge. Priests can also be appointed as chaplains, which means they serve a particular community such as a school, hospital, workplace or prison. Although all these titles mean something slightly different, they all refer to the fact that priests are subordinate to, but also co-workers with, their Bishop. And just as the Bishop is to be like Christ to his Diocese, so priests are to be like Christ to their particular congregations, whether in parishes or chaplaincies, acting in persona Christi.
The diaconate is an order of ministry constituted in order to serve the Bishop and wider Church. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the Bishop and his priests in the celebration of the sacraments, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity. Some people feel a very distinctive ministry to the diaconate and so become what are known as Permanent or Distinctive Deacons. Every Bishop and Priest, however, is also a Deacon, as orders are cumulative. That is, you have to be ordained a Deacon before you can be ordained a Priest, and you have to be ordained a Priest before you can become a Bishop. For those who feel called to be a Priest, a second ordination, to the priesthood, usually follows about a year after a candidate has been ordained as a Deacon.
The ability to perform the sacrament of Ordination is a right reserved to the Bishop alone, acting on the recommendation of his advisers. It can be a long process from first feeling a calling to serve God and the Church in an ordained capacity, to the point of ordination itself, and people feel callings at different stages in their lives. Some notice this calling at a very young age, for others it can come later in life. Yet it is important to spend time discerning God’s call to make sure that both you and the Church are confident of that call, before taking the step. Like Baptism, you cannot be ‘unordained’, so the vows you make at ordination are permanent and the sacrament life changing. The Church of England has a whole network of support for those exploring ordained ministry, but in the first instance, if you are interested in exploring ordination as a Deacon or a Priest then please contact the Vicar.
Some people are clearly called to serve God by a life of prayer and/or by works of charity, rather than as a Deacon or Priest. There are many different ways of living what is known as the Religious Life in the Church. Some orders are contemplative and focus on prayer, some are active and focus on healing or education or mission or providing retreat centres etc. Some orders are solitary, whereas others are based around a community. Each order nonetheless has a different charism, or gift, which it contributes to the whole. Monks and nuns live celibate lives, but those with an interest in the monastic tradition can join orders as ‘tertiaries’ which need not include a commitment to celibacy or living in a particular community. Again, if you are interested in exploring the Religious Life, speak to the Vicar, and he will be able to put you in touch with someone who can offer advice.